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King Corn: Food or Fuel?

  • Jim Kent

The documentary film King Corn will premiere on public television stations in the United States this month. The independent production examines how corn – the grain known in most parts of the world as maize – is grown and, more importantly, how the crop has made its way into an amazing number of today's food products. As Jim Kent reports, it's also part of the discussion about the extraordinary role corn plays in the world's diet and the role many see it playing as an alternative energy source.

Corn: it's in our meat, it's in our snacks, it seems to be everywhere. That's why filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis planted a half-hectare of corn and followed it from an Iowa field to the supermarket and into our bodies.

As a scientist notes in the film, Ellis and Cheney's bodies are both more than 50-percent corn. Ellis has nothing against the crop, but says he's concerned about how it's altered. "It's not that corn is unhealthy," he explains. "It's the products corn becomes and the products corn enables [that] are unhealthy. High-fructose corn syrup – at best, it's empty calories and at worst it's the real culprit in the obesity epidemic."

High fructose corn syrup is in everything from spaghetti sauce to soda pop. It also contributes to Type 2 diabetes, a potentially deadly condition in which the body can no longer process sugar properly. And, Ellis notes, it's also created a whole industry of inexpensive processed foods. "We risk having one food system that is built for wealthy people and gives them an opportunity to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables and pasture-raised lean meat and eat a healthy diet. And another food system built for lower-income people, which is fast food and processed food. Really, it's the corn kingdom of high-fructose corn syrup and corn-fed, fast-food beef."

Nowhere is this connection between diet and health more dramatically evident than in the American Indian community, where diabetes and obesity are epidemic.

That's why Indigenous Issues Forums screened King Corn in Rapid City, before its national broadcast. The community-based group creates family-friendly environments for discussions of controversial topics. Spokesperson Ruth Yellow Hawk notes that the post-screening discussion quickly evolved from corn's nutritional value to its use as an energy source. "Somebody in the audience mentioned, you know, what are we doing as we begin to think so hard about creating ethanol with this product and do we know how much diesel we're using to create that little bit of ethanol?"

That one observation led to a lively discussion of the issue. Local rancher Lynette Graff expressed ethical concerns about corn-based ethanol. "We are using our food for fuel...when there are people that are starving in the world that are needing food, and we're turning around and turning it into fuel."

Pat Christie also comes from a ranching family. She'd like to see some sort of ethanol developed as a substitute for oil, but – from personal experience – doesn't have much faith in a corn-based product. "I put ethanol into my vehicle two summers ago and it locked up," she says. "So, I think they need to do more work on it. I think it would be good if it were stabilized, and that's fine.
But I think it's kind of a crime that all those fields of corn are not edible. So, I think maybe we should change from corn to sawdust or other things and try to put some of that farmland back into food that is edible."

These concerns over corn ethanol are shared by David Tilman. The University of Minnesota ecologist explains that alternate agricultural energy sources are already being explored. "They would use some of the residue from agriculture. A part of the stover [leaves and stalks], let's say, from corn... some of the straw from wheat and so on, as an energy source. And there are technologies to convert that non-food material into ethanol and other liquid fuels."

Tilman says many in the scientific community believe these fuel alternatives will turn out to be less expensive and more energy-efficient sources of ethanol than corn. "If you look at all the energy in a gallon of ethanol, 20 percent of that energy is needed to grow the corn, 60 percent of that energy is the energy needed to convert that corn into ethanol. So, only 20 percent or so is new energy."

The bottom line, he says, is that demand for agricultural-based energy sources – combined with a worldwide population increase over the next 50 years – makes it almost certain that the rise in the price of corn and other farm commodities will continue, and so will debate over the best use for this important source of food and fuel.

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